Thriving in today's engineering world

Engineers can follow these steps to develop a product.

01/24/2011


No matter which role I focused on—be it a drafter, designer, manufacturing engineer, or quality engineer—the goal was the same: Create a profit by inventing something new or build it economically. The best method to obtain a return on investment (ROI) is improving a product or designing a useful novel product. For the engineer to thrive, some details, processes, policies, and culture must be in place.

For example, new product development must be a cross-functional company goal, not an engineering task. There must be a defined communication process in place in which everyone participates, not just a mismatch of communication events that you hope will come together. Let the marketing and sales department speak for the customer, and let the engineers find solutions to customer needs. The company must provide suitable tools (software, hardware, and systems) that complement the core competencies within the organization. The last aspect is to tie all this together with a well thought-out product development plan—a detailed cross-functional communication plan that is simple, obtainable, and flexible for future opportunities.

When an opportunity presents itself, the company must be ready to act. If the company culture and philosophy is “create a product as a team” and not just to complete an engineering task, success is more likely. However, in my experience I have seen poor communication. I have seen lack of vision, and lack of good communication with only a tactical plan.

I have participated in engineering events where we were expected to serve as the sales, marketing, purchasing, manufacturing, and other teams. We did it all and then “threw it over the wall,” with no communication until the end of the project. The company was disconnected from the engineering product development process.

I also have worked in organizations in which the team could not make any decision without upper management's approval—micro management at its best (or worst). In this type of environment, nothing is accomplished on time or within budget. Clear and concise information must be presented, and decisions need to be made quickly.

Upper management establishes and communicates a vision and a strategic product plan for the company to thrive. The plan defines the market. The market segments make sense. The planning activity is not a one-hour task once a year; it is something that evolves over time. The plan is addressed annually and revised to reflect changes. Most importantly, the plan is communicated cross-functionally.

To effectively bring to market a new design is not just an engineering job—it must be a company goal. If it is not a company goal, then you will get just what the engineers want you to have. The better the plan is, the sooner profits come from sales. The company acts as a team united, not divided. Communication is the key here.

With the plan in place, and the culture ready to adapt, the next issue to resolve is teamwork. For a project team to be effective, team members must be empowered. What does “empowerment” really mean? The ability to make decisions within some guidelines. If team members are allowed to do that, they can truly feel empowered.

With an empowered team and a long-term vision, the next step in improving the product development task is to communicate the process that describes the goal of product development, the tasks needed to achieve it, and the roles of the participants in the development process. There are many processes to choose from, including Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) and Plan Do Study Act (PDSA). No matter what you use or establish, the objective is to control cost, manage the budget, and meet the customer needs. If your process covers those three items, and you consistently and frequently communicate project status, you will stay headed down the right track.

Thriving today depends on a lot on the industry and your products. There are many ways to achieve new product launch success, as we’ve discussed. Most importantly, product development is not just an engineering task. It is a company objective, requiring a laser-like focus, clear communications, and cross-functional teams empowered to create.


Janitz is manager of engineering at Muncie Power Products.


Implementation tips:

  1. Let the engineers engineer; therefore, manage the project from outside the engineering department.
    • Manage the project phase-by-phase
    • Be creative and flexible
  2. Improve and/or provide the necessary tools to achieve stated goals. Some examples are:
    • 3-D modeling
    • 3-D scanning
    • 3-D printing
  3. Institutionalize a long-term product plan showing dependencies and advanced engineering.
    • Create and communicate a high-level strategic team
    • Devise a customer picture
    • Construct and present a product plan

 



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